Honors Essay 02: Magnum Opus

4,715 words. Tallyho!

MAGNUM OPUS: OF THE STORYTELLER AND HIS STORY

This past semester has been and continues to be crucial for me in many ways. Decisions that are likely to affect the rest of my life must be made. Reevaluations of my life are necessary, leading to a search for resolution to various and sundry existential dilemmas. In this process I am lead to question my value and purpose as an artist. Since childhood I have considered myself most fundamentally to be a writer. In this essay I shall not seek to address the particulars of why I as an individual should write and how I go about it, although of course being my own person this shall be manifested and interspersed throughout, but rather I intend to focus on what the relationship is of any storyteller to his story, and especially why the writer must write, and why the story must be told.

In this essay I declare that writing is distinct from the other arts because of the way in which it deals with story. To this I add my own experiences as a writer in order to examine the process and the relationship. I then consider what makes writing meaningful, and at last draw conclusions based not only upon what I see of the art and artists, but also what I see exemplified in the Divine artist. Thus these elements add up to drive me to a threefold definition of purpose.

Herein I have begun by using the term “writer” to describe myself and others of my ilk, namely those who use writing as the medium of their art. This is an accurate description of the craft, but does not do justice to the meaning I am trying to convey, namely that the art of the writer rests primarily and primally in the medium of words. Henceforth I shall rely largely on the synonymous term “author,” which does not imply the necessity of actual “writing” for the existence of the art in some form.

A Dilemma Posed: The Purpose of Writing

One of the Russian director Tarkovsky’s best-known films is the 1979 science-fiction experiment Stalker (Сталкер; here it refers literally to stalking, or walking stealthily). It is an intellectual and aesthetic experience lasting 163 minutes, and empathy is necessary to enjoy it along with an ability to accept what one cannot understand at the time. There are three major characters identified only by their occupations: Stalker, Writer, and Professor, who are traveling into a mysterious and deadly area called the Zone. Stalker is the guide, and he takes the other two to this place in the Zone called the Room, where, it is said, the deepest wishes of the heart will be granted. On the way, the two characters Writer and Professor are forced to evaluate their motives and purpose in life. The cynical Writer’s dilemma especially touched me, and his monologues brought up things that I had not even considered about the essence and meaning in his art. I reproduce one such monologue below, delivered immediately after a brush with death, as translated in the subtitles.

I’ve got no conscience. I’ve just got nerves. Some bastard criticizes me, and I get wounded. Another lauds me, and I get wounded again. I would put my heart and soul in it; they gobble up both my heart and soul. I would relieve my soul of filth; they gobble it up too. They’re all so literate. They all have a sensory deficiency. And they’re all swarming around: journalists, editors, critics, some endless broads. And they all demand: “More, more!” What hell of a writer am I if I hate writing—if it’s a constant torment for me, a painful, shameful occupation, a sort of squeezing out hemorrhoids? I used to think someone would be better off because of my books. But no, nobody needs me! Two days after I die they’ll start gobbling up someone else. I wanted to change them, but it’s they who’ve changed me, making me in their own image. The future used to be just a continuation of the present, with all the changes looming far behind the horizon. Now the future and the present are one. Are they ready for it? They don’t want to know anything! All they want to know is how to gobble![1]

Dissecting this monologue (as well as any element of a Tarkovsky film) takes time and thought, and I am not sure I have yet grasped the fullness of what it expresses, but essentially Writer’s main crisis is that he sees no meaning in the purposes of his life. What he produces, whether it is good or bad, his readers devour; he believes that they do not truly care about what he is trying to teach them; they only exist to “gobble.” The Writer’s view of his art, therefore, might be reduced to a clash between his intent in writing, which is to teach the world, and the intent of his readers, which is merely to absorb mindlessly whatever is popular at the time. He in turn has become shaped by the demands of his readers and has lost touch with his art. At another point in the film he remarks that unless he is remembered in a hundred years his whole life will have been wasted. As an artist he wants a sense of fulfillment, something to assure him that his art was of more than temporary value.

I cannot speak with certainty on behalf of the artistic world as a whole, but I would be surprised if it were not so that the artist without a basic philosophy or reason for his work will have difficulties later on, either when his expectations are not met, or when these expectations are met and prove unfulfilling. As a writer in particular I intend in this paper to examine, beginning at the most basic level, what writing is and for what end I should write.

The Art Anatomized: Why Writing Is Different

To begin, I will draw distinctions between writing and the other arts; that distinctions exist beyond mere medium I have no doubt. Writing is looked on in a slightly different way than the other arts; it is not necessarily perceived as inferior, I think, but commonly taken for granted as a component of everyday experience.

To illustrate this I use an anecdote from my past with which, perhaps, others can identify. As a preteen especially I experimented with many of the arts, including writing, directing, and acting in plays; writing and making music; drawing, painting, and sculpting; etc. Most prevalently, from the earliest time when I could read, I wrote and illustrated my own stories in crayon. Adults would look at my stories and make complimentary, pseudo-prophetic utterances about me. But what they almost always said was, “You’ll be an artist when you grow up,” meaning by this a visual artist. They did not think primarily of the writing in which, as it eventually turned out, I was most interested and gifted. They rarely said, “You’ll be a writer when you grow up.” They first thought of the drawings that accompanied it as showing signs of artistic ability.

This experience may be interpreted a variety of ways. Perhaps my writing didn’t show as much promise as my drawing. Perhaps it is because the drawings filled the page and half of the text was often written into the margins. But I am convinced that it had something to do with the nature of the art itself. Even after I decided that I was a writer, and really began to focus on improving my skills in this regard, I received far more compliments on my “doodling” than I ever did on a well-phrased paragraph or finely-crafted sentence. People naturally recognized some superiority or skill in these latter things, and this ability has been lauded at various times in both pragmatic and purely aesthetic situations, but it did not occur to them that the craft of the sentence could be in its way an art and a vocation in itself.

Again, I think the idea of writing being taken for granted is key. Although it is somewhat tautological to say that virtually all literate people write as a means of communication or expression, this statement emphasizes the fact that while not everyone makes sketching or making music or dancing or acting a regular part of their lives, anyone who is to have any influence in greater society or a higher education of any kind must also be a writer. This may be cultural, and it may not, but there is something that seems so intuitive about writing that we are often prone to forget, whether it is that pompously designated as “creative writing” or not, it is inherently an act of craft, skill, and, ultimately, imagination.

Now that we have established writing as an art, what are the technical distinctions that it possesses to set itself apart from the other arts? In a way I have touched on the reason, which I believe is merely its lack of reliance upon tangible medium. In visual art the artist and the medium interact in the process of creation to create the final piece of art. In dance and theater, the artist’s body and mannerisms serve as the medium without which there would be no art. In music there must be instruments and a player. But a story may never be written down, or it may be written down long after its creation, such as Homer’s Iliad. This is why I emphasized in the introduction that I will seek to use primarily the term “author” in reference to the composer of narrative rather than “writer.” The author’s medium is words, which are metaphysical, subjective entities that may exist in a variety of forms.

In this way writing is the most direct and comprehensive transmission of story. A picture may be worth a thousand words in some respects; it is certainly more concise. But a picture does not in itself tell us why. It contains within it no time, and reason must be deciphered from the visual experience. The story of the subject flows from the subjective consciousness of the viewer in the form of story—which is expressed in words, the tools and medium of the author. Words do not only carry or transmit meaning: they clarify meaning for us. Those who have no language, as demonstrated by the wolf-children, are incapable of normal human thought and function. Ideas without labels are singularly hard to understand. And writing is an art of labels.

This is not to say that writing is superior or inferior to the other arts; but I think it does show that it works on something more fundamental. As Leonardo da Vinci insists, a painting may communicate to anyone in the world; nevertheless, its communicability rests upon the translation of the visual to the intellectual, which manifests itself as words. When we want to explain a painting, we do not paint another painting: we explain it verbally or in writing. The factor of language may limit writing, but it also allows it to penetrate on a different level. To reiterate, the story of the author is not reliant upon a verbal or tangible medium, i.e. spoken words or pen and ink; it can exist in the abstract and be transmitted in one of thousands of possible methods and mediums. The other arts may translate thought and idea into some other medium so as to transmit it via one or another of the senses. The author works with thought and idea as directly as is humanly possible.

We cannot say, of course, that the author works solely with meaning and ideas. Otherwise we might assume that the only thing the author must do to achieve excellence is know how to think clearly. No, the skill of the author rests not only in the formation of ideas but also their articulation. He (and this pronoun does not imply the necessity that the author must be male) must be a master of shaping sentences, using words with not only correct but also aesthetic connotation and denotation. He must not only love his words, but also force them into submission. They must respond intuitively to his call. This is in some ways analogous to raising children, perhaps. Similar metaphors will arise from this study.

The Process Examined: What Writing Is Like

In C. S. Lewis’s essay “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said,” he compares the writer and his work to a marriage. He explains that when inspiration strikes in the form of an image, it can be like being in love. The inspiration wants desperately to be manifested, and affects all parts of one’s life with its urgings. And the author must choose, not only by feeling but also by good sense, whether or not to gratify this desire.[2]

After some thought, I realized just how accurate in some ways this is. I would extend it further. Although the parallel cannot be drawn absolutely, for the simple reason that one can choose to abandon or change the story whereas one should generally not abandon or change one’s spouse, there is a similarity in the commitment required. The author who chooses a story that must be written, and finds it a good and profitable story, devotes much of his life to its nurture and growth. He may grow cold or distant toward it sometimes; he may lose hope on its resolution. But he always returns to it. It can consume him; it can make or destroy him. For the story has great potency not only for the reader but also for the writer.

From this understanding I began to wonder about the exact nature of the relationship between story and storyteller. Hence this essay exists, and hence I shall continue in this section to describe what my experience with the creation of story is like. In order to explain what story is in the author’s experience I must necessarily refer to my own, which may or may not be consistent with that of other authors but should regardless contain similarities.

First comes the idea. Whether scraped for, or of its own accord, it does come. It may be a character, an image, a scene, a plot element, or even just a feeling. I toy with it for a while, experimenting by putting it in different frames. At last I land on some sort of structure that “feels right,” and from there I expand my reach into other characters, images, plot elements, etc. I may at this time begin writing, and often it comes out in the form of disjointed fragments at first that must somehow be knit together.

But sometimes, especially after interacting with other art, there arises the euphoria of inspiration. Visions and ideas, rapid and beautiful, saturate my brain, filling my consciousness like music. It becomes a race to try and put words on page. I cease to think in words or even sentences; I think in ideas and write unconsciously, paragraph after paragraph, guided by intuition. This ends one of two ways. Sometimes the visions clog, and I am left without words or perhaps place to describe them coherently. Usually only sleep or engaging in another absorbing activity can clear it, but in such time the inspiration has often passed. Alternatively, I can run to exhaustion, when the gushing flows to a drip, and then there’s nothing more to do but retire.

On the other hand, writing is often more like childbirth, a taxing and mind-numbing process. First, it can be painful due to mere lack of inspiration. Parts of the total work must be written at some juncture, but no longer can pure intuition be relied upon; it must simply be composed without regard to quality, at least until later revision. On the other hand, there is another way in which writing can be painful, and that is by integrity and dedication.

Whether by inspiration or slow process, the best writing is that flooded with meaning. I have recently started to grasp the concept of writing from vulnerability rather than surety. Such story is in some ways far more real and relatable. To project the conflicts and paradoxes of human experience into imagined story is to speak truth as it is known to the imaginer. Creative writing is, in a way, sacrifice. I have only recently begun to realize through my interaction with other artists the truth of this principle. The best authors speak of the truth that they know, even if it is an unresolved truth, and in doing so they expose their vulnerability and allow themselves to be vessels of something greater than themselves. And they are willing to let it consume their lives for its own sake. Perhaps it is true that the great artist must also be a mystic.

A Dichotomy Detailed: The Word Was With God

As I have discussed in a previous essay, story arises naturally from our interaction with our environment spatially and temporally. This is increased with spatial and temporal distance; when we live in the moment, bombarded with images and ideas presented to us with very little organization, we are less likely to determine what is important on an overarching level, whereas we are more selective in looking back and are more likely to see the enduring fabric of the story in it all.

When I look back over my own life, what do I see? I see images, most fundamentally. One of the earliest images I have, like a snapshot, is from when I was three or four. It was around Christmastime in the evening, when (in Oregon, anyway) there are everywhere large tinsel decorations hanging from the telephone poles and lampposts. As we drove into the Wal-Mart parking lot there was one I noticed in the shape of a mermaid. There are other images that flood in as well, such as going out into the Oregon countryside in a pickup truck to gather wild blackberries in the heat and the dust of the summer, or driving past cows and sheep and grass to buy large jars of clover honey from a farm. I recall indoors turning the couches on their sides and making caverns and tunnels with them, sometimes extended by blankets and chairs. We would hide in there in the dark, the four of us, with blankets and pillows, and at night I would imagine the bunyip with not a slight bit of childish fear. I remember with fondness the season when farmers burned their fields after harvest; we would stand in the yard and watch great black plumes of smoke rise up from around us, and then later see the blackened earth within the fences. The window of my room in the town of Lebanon looked out onto a great hill that loomed over the flat countryside. It seemed to me silent and ponderous. Why I remember these things, or what their peculiar importance is to me, I cannot say for certain. For instance, I haven’t the foggiest idea why a mermaid-shaped Christmas decoration should stick in my memory any more than why I recall crawling through the trusses of a piano when I was six while pondering my existence at a point in time. But I am able to collectively trace some sort of story through them all. They may exist as isolated images in my mind, but they conjoin to compose what I am today. There is a story there.

When I was quite young I intuitively believed that I was meant for some great and extraordinary purpose. As I came to believe that this rested in my writing, around nine or ten I also concluded that it would be best if God led me to create my great work and let me pass on from the world. I have since amended my views about purpose, in that I believe there are probably other things God wishes me to accomplish on this earth as well. But this shows the immense importance I attributed to my art and my act of greatest creation: I thought it a supreme offering and a divine mission. I can say with assurance this was not implanted in me by any human being; it was intuitive. It spoke to my nature. It is thus in our nature to translate experience into art, and also to feel purpose in art.

A Relationship Defined: Story and Storyteller

Recently, ideas gleaned from several classes came into conjunction with several conversations and my own thoughts to lead me to a fresh understanding of the cosmos. This understanding has, I believe, direct bearing on the topic, and so I shall relate it and attempt to reduce it to its essentials.

I started with the question of where the existent meaning in art comes from. For instance, if a sculptor cuts a human figure out of stone, that figure is still stone. What makes it special to the human mind? I concluded, especially after studying Kant, that it was because some element in the sculpture corresponded to the figurative topography of the artists mind, like the bittings of a key to a lock or one piece of a puzzle to another. In this way there is some metaphysical connection between the art and the human receiver; they communicate in a special way.

This corresponds to our physical needs. We create utilitarian objects in order to fulfill a practical lack in our existence. Even so, we create art to complement the contours of our soul. Acting in a reverse way, as receivers, if we understand the art, we can understand the artist as a human and as an individual. This gets truly fascinating where the principle can be extended to Deity. We may consider all of Creation to correspond to some part of the immensity of His mind. Not only that, but we may consider Creation to be the visible manifestation, in some ways, of what exists in His mind, His attributes and His nature.

And so we may return to the mortal with this analogy. Thus far I have looked at the distinction of writing, the experience of writing, and the basis of writing; I think this serves as a passable definition of the subjective story and the meaning it has for the creator and receiver. Correspondingly, we may consider what the actual substance of the story is as it exists in the mind of the author, in transmission (or on the page), and in the mind of the receiver. Dorothy Sayers is extremely helpful for clarifying these distinctions in The Mind of the Maker. Her trinitarian distinctions between Idea, Energy, and Power highlight the metaphysical nature of story as it is passed from conceiver to medium to receiver. In a way the story in each form is different; yet it is in another way the same story, and in cannot exist effectively without all existing in all three states.[3]

In sum, what is the relationship between story and storyteller? The story grows out of the mind of the storyteller as an Idea. It is in a format understood by him because it shares a human essence and a metaphysical connection. As it emanates and grows distinct from the mind of the storyteller, and becomes incarnate Energy, this meaning, expressed in words, is recorded in the physical world, where it is released as Power in the minds of the readers. Thus story leaves its legacy; it is something at once sharing in temporal human existence and immortality.

A Conclusion Reached: The Meaning and the Purpose

I have constructed a circle within this paper and come back to the question of what really is the purpose and importance of the invention of story. Now that I have delineated the nature of the story and its relationship to the storyteller, I shall seek to finally pinpoint the meaning of it all.

Tarkovsky’s character Writer has a dilemma because his meaning was found in giving his readers something of value, something that would change them for the better. He comes to the conclusion that his readers did not truly care about getting truth from his books, and also realizes that he had begun to write with that fact subconsciously ingrained. If the story he found so urgent to communicate from his own mind to that of his readers was ultimately meaningless and without profit, then why go to through the pain and vulnerability of writing?

In Jorge Luis Borges’s short story “The Secret Miracle” (one of the inspirations for Christopher Nolan’s recent film Inception), the protagonist is a Polish Jew, Jaromir Hladík, who is brought before a Nazi firing squad. Before they shoot him Hladík prays to God for just one more year to work on his great work, a play called The Enemies. God grants him this request of one more year by freezing external time. Hladík then spends the next year, even as the firing squad stands frozen and ready, finishing his play. Since no one will ever know about the miracle and his work, his magnum opus ceases to become about leaving something to posterity. It is about the author himself, resolving something within him. As he finishes refining it to perfection and at last chooses an epitaph, time restarts and Hladík is killed.[4]

Why does Hladík write? He writes for himself. He writes to find resolution to the incompleteness of his mind, which demands its complement. Writing is truly a process of discovery and forming that complement. Would I know so much about myself and my world if I did not write? I am strongly inclined to doubt this. I have understood the themes of life in richer detail for my own creative explorations. If the ability to write were taken away from me, I might think myself only half a person, even deaf and dumb, so inherent and purposeful do I find it.

And yet this can only be a partial answer. If one writes for oneself, what is the purpose of going beyond mere physical manifestation of the story? Why share it? Why seek intelligibility for an external audience? We must remember that story is not merely a representation or expression of self. It is also a part of the expression of humanity. Thus there is, in a sense, a duty to write for the benefit of the readers. We are not only writers, but we are readers also, and we cannot exist singly or cumulatively as artists without other writers to learn from and teach, so that we may individually reach greater heights of imagination and realization of truth.

Nor should we forget the duty that the Christian author has toward God. Made in the image of God, we identify ourselves with our Creator in making art and speaking truth. For the pious heart writing should be an act of worship and edification. Here we reach a third purpose in writing: we write as an act of loyalty and devotion to the King, and also to the Kingdom of Heaven and its health upon the earth.

So how do I justify my art? How do I respond to Writer? I have a duty to myself as well as to my readers to reach for understanding and the complement. For others, my purpose is not found solely in what I can teach. It is also in what I can contribute to the mass of ideas and to the great process of personal and collective human discovery of truth.

Drawing back one last time to the Divine analogy, for whom did God create the earth? It was for its inhabitants, certainly. But it was also for Himself. It was the expression of the truth He knew, which was Himself. If we dare say that God, in His perfection, desired and in some way needed the complement that creation provided, I think we will be approaching the truth of the matter.

After this deliberation we can declare a tripartite purpose: the author writes for his Creator who may be honored by his works, for his fellow humans who may reap truth of his works, and for himself, that he may fulfill his Divinely-inspired desires and create his great work.


[1] Stalker, DVD, dir. Andrei Tarkovsky (1979; New York: Kino Video, 2006).

[2] C. S. Lewis, “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said,” in On Stories (Orlando, Florida: Harcourt, Inc, 1982), 46.

[3] Dorothy Sayers, The Mind of the Maker (1941; New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1987), 38-39.

[4] Jorge Luis Borges, “The Secret Miracle,” in Ficciones, trans. Emecé Editores (New York, NY: Grove Press, 1962) 143-150.

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2 comments on “Honors Essay 02: Magnum Opus

  1. Hannah says:

    Mm, excellent.

  2. salvageroost says:

    I think both the Tarkovsky / Borges references and the childhood anecdotes were quite effective here.

    Also, “I have recently started to grasp the concept of writing from vulnerability rather than surety” … ^_^

    The idea of “writing for oneself” is something I’ll be mulling over for a while…

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